Business as Usual
Ever since Socrates attacked the sophists for producing sophists, critics have observed that teachers tend to teach the way in which they themselves were taught. If they as children were placed in desks arranged in long, narrow rows, then they are likely to restrict the movement of their own pupils. If they spent years filling in blanks and bubbling in answers, then their own students are likely to be inundated with work sheets and multiple-choice tests. If silent obedience was expected of them, then they in turn are likely to equate respect with dutiful acquiescence.
The job of encouraging teachers to break with, or at least to reflect upon, handed-down practices lies in part with the nation's colleges of education-- the 1,300 institutions that prepare thousands of new teachers each year. The climate, as perhaps never before, is right for these schools of education to challenge the traditional views that many of their students bring to the campuses. For one thing, the reform movement has raised critical questions about how schools are organized and operated. For another, there recently has been an explosion of cognitive research demonstrating that children don't learn best the way most public school teachers teach. Scholars such as Harvard University's Howard Gardner and the University of Chicago's Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have convincingly documented that children are inherently creative thinkers with an insatiable curiosity and robust theories about the world around them. They are not, as the system seems to assume, passive vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge handed down by teachers.
The young people currently making their way through our colleges of education will be entering the public schools at a time when traditional behavioristic approaches to teaching are under assault and schools are being asked to meet unprecedented challenges. How, if at all, have schools of education changed to prepare their students for this new world? Are they gearing up to turn out the "reflective practitioners'' that almost all reformers are calling for? Have they calibrated their courses and teaching with the knowledge and ideas that are driving the reform movement?
To find out, I decided to spend a week at Illinois State University in Normal. If one could be hopeful about what is happening in teacher education at an institution like Illinois State, then one, it seemed to me, could probably be hopeful about what is going on at other such institutions around the country.
Established as a normal school in 1857, Illinois State is one of the nation's oldest and largest teacher education institutions--10th or 12th in size, depending upon the list you consult. It enrolls 1,550 undergraduate education majors--1,050 in elementary education, where I focused most of my attention. One out of four teachers in Illinois is a graduate of ISU. While the Harvard Graduate School of Education may garner infinitely more publicity, it is institutions like Illinois State that go about the largely unheralded work of preparing the nation's teachers.
Furthermore, Illinois State is in the ideological mainstream. For the most part, its professors are not progressive; the majority does not believe that new teachers can or should be agents of change. "You can't expect conservative middle-class white women to promote change,'' one professor told me. Still, there is a growing belief among the faculty that teachers must be educated in a spirit of inquiry. Faculty members like to say their school, like others across the nation, is a college in transition or, as one professor put it, "a college that wants to be in transition.''
Over the course of my stay, I would learn that training students for the status quo is, however unintentional, still the predominant activity at ISU. But on the first day of my visit, as I sat in on several classes of ed school juniors, this was far from evident. The students in these classes insisted that history would not repeat itself: They would not automatically teach as they had been taught.
Many of the elementary education students--more than 90 percent of whom are women, mostly in their early 20s--said they wanted to break the mold. "I think a lot of us were surprised at how traditional things were,'' one student said of the elementary classrooms she and her classmates had already observed. "But we're not discouraged--we're going to make the difference.'' "There's a move toward relating subjects, integrating curriculum,'' said another. "I want to be part of that.'' Yet another said she had greatly disliked school as a student, finding it "less than inspiring.'' "Most of us are committed to changing schools,'' she said. "We're here because we realize there is an absolute need for it.''
Yet, as many students were slowly beginning to discover, changing schools and the teaching that goes on in them would not be an easy matter. Although they would not do their intensive student teaching until their senior year, they were already spending time observing and helping out in area schools. In fact, during their junior year they each would spend a minimum of 100 hours in schools, observing firsthand the "real world'' of teaching. Much of what they'd seen to date in these "clinic'' schools was, as far as they were concerned, antiquated if not ineffective practice. They talked of harried teachers who "just hugged their manuals'' and did "everything just the way we were taught not to do it'' and of lesson plans consisting of "stuff so structured almost anyone could teach the class.''
In an elementary reading methods class I visited, Tom Baer, professor and chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction, introduced the subject of reading groups by asking his students how the teachers in their clinic schools approached grouping. Some students said their master teachers used heterogeneous groups or no groups at all, but many said their teachers grouped students by ability. That sort of nascent tracking, Baer said, is the norm. He told the class that during his first year of teaching 6th grade, students had been grouped in five reading sections, the fives being the least bright. "It was the most ineffective method of teaching reading I have ever seen,'' Baer said. "Once a kid is assigned the low group, he's stereotyped and will never get out.''
During the ensuing discussion, the students cited research demonstrating that they were well-acquainted with the pitfalls of homogeneous grouping. One student summed things up with a tennis analogy: You won't improve if you never play with someone at least slightly better than you are. Why then, Baer asked, do we continue to group in such ways when evidence suggests that it's ineffective?
"It's easier,'' several students said in unison.
"And,'' Baer said--here several students, anticipating what was coming next, intoned the following words along with their professor--"You teach as you were taught.''
"Many of your teachers were taught in ability-level groups, so they put their kids in groups,'' he explained. "And it takes guts for you, an untenured person, to go in and say, 'You're doing it wrong; research says...' ''
Baer was not the only professor to sound this theme. In a class titled "Measurement, Management, and Curriculum''--the first education course most students take--professor John Goeldi was asked by a student why schools were so slow to change. "People--not only teachers but administrators and education professors, too--replicate experience again and again,'' he said.
"But things are changing,'' one of his students offered. "My principal said she'd never put up with a teacher who just stood in front of the class and talked.''
Goeldi, who has taught at ISU for 27 years, did not lecture; he wanted his students not so much to learn how to present content as to ferret out what is frequently called "the hidden curriculum.'' In a class I attended, he had students examine a chapter from a 6th grade textbook on the U.S. Constitution. Although strewn with detailed information, the book, Goeldi told students, had some rather peculiar omissions. "It doesn't tell you what's required to become president?'' someone ventured. Goeldi pressed on, and the students, suddenly incredulous, realized that democracy was not mentioned once in the entire chapter.
"We must be suspicious of textbooks and printed materials,'' Goeldi said. "We have to think not only of the content but also of the unwritten content. What's left unsaid must also be a study. How could democracy and freedom not be in an article about the Constitution? It's our job to pose these kinds of questions to our students.''
What I saw in these classes seemed cause for optimism, for it was apparent that the students were urged to examine and re-examine the very premises upon which teaching is based. But if these classes of juniors were determined that history would not repeat itself--if they expected to become, to varying degrees, "new kinds'' of teachers--then a large contingent of seniors I observed the very next day in a packed lecture hall seemed to have made a kind of convenient peace with the status quo. A remarkable transition seemed to have occurred over a single year of study.
Few of these seniors were out of their early 20s or had completed more than two months of student teaching, yet they managed to sound amazingly like grizzled, no-nonsense traditional teachers-- the very teachers who had most likely taught their own parents three or four decades earlier. Presenting research topics before an audience of professors, field supervisors, and fellow students, the seniors stood up straight, enunciated clearly, and betrayed scarcely a trace of nervousness. Yet it did not seem as if their words were their own. The past spoke in the present.
One of the first presentations, on "behavior problems,'' began as a skit in which four students assumed the roles of teachers informally talking in the faculty lounge. All of them had problems with kids "acting out.'' Fretful, they asked one another, "What should we do?'' The skit concluded, and a young woman, rising to summarize the scene with the confident manner of a TV news show moderator, told us that teachers must first check for hyperactivity. Did the student fidget? Blurt out answers? Seem distracted? Such behaviors just might be indicative of hyperactivity. Of course, she said, it was sometimes hard to know the difference between hyperactivity and bad behavior. At this point, a 14-point checklist was disseminated. Still, the young woman told us, "over half the teachers we talked to said gut instinct was the only way to tell.''
After a brief group discussion about developing an effective behavior management program--"We owe it to those who are good children and do listen''--someone flicked on an overhead projector and went over a transparency itemizing "The Different Kinds of Difficult Students.'' At the front end of the long list were "Attention Seekers,'' "Revenge Seekers,'' and "Power Seekers,'' the last defined as, "Kids who refuse to do what you want them to do.''
After a brief break, the next group, picking up the theme of the last, made a presentation on "Classroom Management.'' There was, once again, a statement about how failure to maintain order was unfair to the kids who did want to learn, but there was no acknowledgment of how effective discipline could make for less wear and tear on the teacher, too. Behaviorism--the notion that kids will respond to carefully calculated rewards and punishments--was the general motif of this presentation. Students, the consensus was, should receive treats and stars for positive behaviors; conversely, "bad'' behavior was best dealt with firmly and promptly. "It's better to be too tough than too easy,'' one student said, reflecting the comments of others. "If you're firm early in the year, you can always let up a bit later.'' One student told how her master teacher used a "check'' system; misbehaving students who chalked up a specified number of checks on the blackboard received a predetermined punishment. "The problem with that,'' a dubious group member said, "is that some boys in my class would have a hundred checks by the end of the day.''
To hear these student teachers talk so openly and unabashedly of troublemakers and the need for toughness was surprising, for they had come of pedagogical age during a time ripe--perhaps even over-ripe--with talk of "critical thinking'' and "teaching the whole person.'' There was no apparent recognition, for example, that students' behavior is closely linked to how stimulating and interesting the teacher makes the classroom environment. But even more surprising was the young man who affably suggested the Ritalin alternative. "Some students just need medication,'' he said of kids afflicted with what he called "BD'' (behavioral disorder). To this he then added a qualifier. "Of course, you can't just prescribe a pill and think you'll have a better kid. Ritalin can be effective, but it must be done with behavior modification.'' He finished by acknowledging that Ritalin could have serious side effects and, in rare cases, induce seizures.
During the presentations, there were no comments or questions from the audience, though two older students I was sitting with quietly interjected cogent observations. The women were troubled, they said, by the urgency with which the student teachers identified "troublemakers''; as mothers, they realized that some young students were "just immature'' or "just being children.'' One of the women, who planned to teach preschool, felt that her fellow students simply hadn't had enough experience with children. "When I look at some of these 22-year-olds,'' she said, "I think that a lot of what they hear in their classes is boring to them or goes right over their heads. They don't understand that the best learning is driven by the kids themselves, although many professors emphasize that.''
Apparent in the presentations was a tendency to think in terms of the mythical "normal'' or "typical'' kid, which undoubtedly contributed to the eagerness with which these seniors labeled departures from the "norm''-- the boisterous boy or the aggressive girl--"hyperactive'' or "troublemakers.'' In fact, when I met with a group of student teachers over a conference table three days later, they told me they were completely unprepared for "the street kinds of things'' that occurred in their classrooms. "What professors at ISU didn't say very often is, 'This won't work for everybody,' '' a student named Erik Jensen told me with general assent from the others. "A lot of us feel overwhelmed by diversity in the classroom.'' Another student teacher, Michelle Bidell, said, "They teach us to teach to the norm. But kids, we've learned, don't fit any such norm.''
Later, an older professor told me about a conversation he'd had with a former ISU student who had returned to the campus after working with American Indian children. "I'm really angry at the faculty here,'' the teacher had told the professor. "You didn't at all prepare me to teach at an Indian reservation.'' The professor laughed as he told this story, as if it were absurd for any student to have such an expectation. Maybe professors can't prepare students specifically to teach American Indians, but they can, it seemed to me, prepare prospective teachers for diversity and the kinds of educational challenges it presents.
In any case, as I sat through the senior presentations, I found that they raised more questions than they answered. Why, for example, were the student teachers so quick to categorize misbehavior? And why was a drug as controversial as Ritalin so casually mentioned as a reasonable alternative?
These questions led to broader ones. Why did the seniors appear so conservative, so accepting of what they were exposed to, whereas the juniors permitted themselves some degree of skepticism about the current state of affairs? What had occurred over the course of a year? Just what were future teachers learning in ed school? Were they essentially absorbing a philosophy of behavior modification, or were they, in the current parlance, being trained as "reflective practitioners''? And, perhaps most important, were they, regardless of what they learned at the university, fated to replicate, for better or worse, the teaching they encountered in the public schools? After all, once novices begin teaching in the schools, they're essentially on their own. There are no professors or supervisors to offer counsel, to offer moral support should, say, a heavy-handed principal issue edicts with which the young teacher disagrees.
With these questions in mind, I met the next day with professor Margaret Shaw-Baker, coordinator of the student teaching program and the professor who had presided over the senior research presentations. Shaw-Baker is by no means a behaviorist. In fact, she considers herself "a constructionist''; that is, she believes children construct meaning out of their own life experiences, which the teacher has an obligation to respect. Attempting to manipulate children--to insist that they adapt to an unimpeachable standard set by the teacher--is, in this view, both ineffective and unethical. If she espoused this position, I asked Shaw-Baker, then why did so many of her students seem so taken with behaviorist notions of control?
Basically, she said, the students had used as their primary sources the teachers they were teamed up with for their student teaching. "Occasionally, as in that last presentation when they were discussing Ritalin, they went to expert sources,'' she explained. "But for the most part, they relied on their teachers. Now, the research was to answer their own questions because this was their inquiry, their investigation.''
During the week I spent at ISU, students time and again mentioned classroom management as their number-one concern. Young and inexperienced, they were fearful--even terrified--of temperamental outbursts and persistent inattentiveness. They had learned from their own school days, when the principal would have to restore order to a classroom "run'' by a cowering substitute, that these were the hallmarks of teacher inadequacy. Their concern, then, with such things as "attention-deficit disorder'' and "hyperactivity'' was perfectly understandable; attaching these labels to misbehaving students removed the onus from the beleaguered teacher. Nevertheless, as Shaw-Baker pointed out, isolating a problem within a student begs an important question: What if the teacher is doing something to promote the very "hyperactivity'' he or she has diagnosed? "We're jumping on a bandwagon with this hyperactivity, and I think they're probably learning this from their [master] teachers,'' Shaw-Baker said. "They're reflecting their teachers' views.''
Novices, Shaw-Baker continued, are in a delicate position. Without confidence or tenure, they may find themselves in an uncomfortable and even risky situation should they decide to challenge the status quo. As a result, she said, they could not initially be expected to be agents of change. But this position, I told Shaw-Baker, seemed delicate to the point of untenable. A teacher who "plays along'' with the status quo for a few years may eventually surrender to it.
"Yeah. Exactly,'' she said. "And I don't know the answer to that. I know there's a game you have to play to get tenure status. You take new teachers and knowingly or unknowingly put them in a highly traditional classroom with a teacher who is pulling on the reins, and you have friction. It happens.
"I do a pre-service survey of my kids as to why they want to become teachers and get extremely idealistic responses. I wonder if by the time they finish their practice teaching, they're not idealistic anymore. Maybe they become conservative because of the clinical experiences they have in the classrooms they're in. It's like harnessing energy. When they begin, they're bristling with idealistic energy, but that energy needs to be harnessed so that it fits into the framework of the classroom. But in harnessing that energy are we killing the idealism?''
Of course, there is no reason we should expect teachers to be different from people in any other profession. Like the young lawyer who has just signed on with a law firm, or the resident joining the staff of a large hospital, there is a natural tendency for the novice teacher to want to please his or her superiors. As such, it is not surprising that the ISU student teachers were quick to align themselves with the dominant practices and ideologies of their master teachers. Nevertheless, the college of education must itself--and everyone from the dean to Shaw-Baker acknowledged this--bear some of the responsibility for not doing a better job of preparing its students to face the realities of classroom life. And "to face'' must not merely mean to adapt to, for if the job of ed schools is simply to enable students to adapt to prevailing practices, then, in a very real sense, schools of education are irrelevant. As the senior presentations demonstrated, the schools can do this job very well on their own.
But in many, often small, ways, the ed school does prepare its students to adapt rather than to question. For one thing, despite the efforts of professors like Baer and Goeldi, much of the curriculum is yet ostensibly behaviorist. In a class on "questioning,'' for instance, the students were told that teachers must learn to improve their questioning skills, since 75 percent of all teacher talk is inquiry; left unexplored was why teachers, and not their students, ask virtually all the questions. The professor also tended to approach the topic in terms of technique, such as "wait time,'' implying that teaching was simply a matter of assuming appropriate behaviors. "Some suggest,'' the professor told the students, "that the optimal wait time after a question is three to five seconds, giving students time to contemplate.''
Another common pattern was to inform students of pedagogical trends within old--some may say stifling-- frameworks. Students spent a great deal of time memorizing terms and answering questions in a quiz-show format. In a reading methods class, for example, students were asked to recite the elements of a story and the five stages of process writing. The test the students were preparing for consisted of 50 fill-in-the-blank, matching, and multiple-choice questions. "We even take multiple-choice tests on authentic assessment,'' one student told me after class.
Other classes were conducted in a more freewheeling style, but they sometimes lost in intellectual rigor what they gained in entertainment value. In a social studies methods class, students attempted to explore the complexities of the First Amendment by presenting a skit in which angry citizens, boycotting an ice cream store, demanded that the government ban ice cream. The whole endeavor, followed by a debate, had a somewhat ludicrous aspect; for in this case, there was no ambiguity: It was immediately clear to everyone that the state had no business authorizing such a ban. "How many of you,'' the professor asked at the end of class, "found history to be boring?'' Virtually everyone raised his or her hand. "Well,'' he said, "here we're having the students explore the First Amendment by talking about ice cream--something that really affects their lives-- rather than a boring textbook.'' Surely there was some sort of middle ground between these extremes.
Tom Baer, chairman of the department of curriculum and instruction, wondered if it made sense to divide the curriculum into a series of methods courses, as they inherently promoted a kind of behaviorist "how to'' bent. "Some people,'' he said, and he counted himself among them, "think that we shouldn't have a program with such a curricular breakdown. Who says we have to have 39,000 methods classes? Maybe there are some generic things we need to focus on, and the students should get content as content majors.''
But it was clear from the two faculty meetings I attended that any proposed change in the current program was going to provoke intense emotions. And perhaps nothing provoked more emotion than Baer's voiced hope that the faculty would provide older college graduates with an alternative route to certification. It didn't make sense, Baer said, that people with a well of valuable life experience should have to spend two years and 53 credit hours to become elementary school teachers.
"But what about a retired military man?'' someone wondered. "He's been in the military his whole life, and now he wants to teach school. Should we just hand him a certificate?'' Another professor pitched in with, "Just because someone's been selling shoes for 10 years doesn't mean he's equipped to become a teacher.''
"We need to bring people into teaching with different kinds of experiences,'' Baer said. "There's nothing in our program absolutely essential to the development of teachers, in my opinion.'' This statement prompted gasps and murmurs of protest.
Professor Wayne Galler, who had supervised teachers for more than 20 years at ISU, countered: "We're professionals trained to train teachers. It takes a long time to train teachers. And we've never before cut back on what our program has offered; we've always added. Our reputation is good. So I think letting people into the profession easier and quicker is questionable. I'm very reluctant to throw our program out and say that just because you were a drill sergeant in the army or in some other profession you can automatically teach. That's like a medical school providing someone with an easy way to get a medical degree.''
"Well, that's right,'' Baer said. "But maybe we've been wrong all these years. We've assumed that the hoops we've put our teachers through have rendered them effective teachers. Maybe that's not the case.'' As if to exemplify the point that requiring a student to take a particular course did not necessarily make good sense, an older professor told of how a new state mandate compelled a former Peace Corps volunteer who had spent years working in Nepal to take a three-credit course in third-world studies.
Galler did not budge. "But when our program is compared with others,'' he said, "it's evident that ours is preferred.''
What Galler said was true. Illinois principals, it was well-known, liked to hire ISU graduates, believing that their education better prepared them to endure the rigors of teaching. Of course, many would say this was precisely the problem: that ISU students, like pieces in a child's puzzle, fit into school systems' slots all too well, making them unlikely critics of schools that in fact needed criticism.
Later, after yet another meeting, I met with several professors who talked about the possibilities of turning away from narrow methods courses in, say, science and social studies, in favor of broader topics, such as creative thinking or problem solving. A professor who taught science methods said that during his first year at ISU, he had talked about "eliminating all these things called methods courses and having instead things like 'critical inquiry.' Of course, that's mixing apples a different way and turns some people off immediately because they each have their own turf.''
Baer said if they weren't so bogged down on techniques, they could spend time on "real questions.'' "As you can see, I'm in transition,'' he added, provoking laughter from his colleagues.
I asked Baer if students had a sense of the history of American education. Were they familiar, for instance, with the ideas of John Dewey?
"Dewey,'' Baer said, racing ahead of the question. "That's the stuff that ought to permeate our courses. As it is, good kids come in to our program, and good kids go out. I'm not sure we make much of a difference.''
In their influential 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, authors Arthur Powell, Eleanor Farrar, and David Cohen argue that the contemporary American high school is similar to a vast shopping mall in which students, like less-than-particular customers, capriciously take a little bit of this and a little bit of that. The philosophy of the shopping mall school is to satisfy the student-customer with a multiplicity of offerings. But unfortunately, the student-customer leaves such a school with goods of varying value and usefulness.
The more I learned about the college of education at ISU, the more its very academic structure reminded me of the shopping mall high school, with all the attendant problems that metaphor implies. Indeed, if Illinois State is a typical ed school, then it's easy to see that ed schools and public schools mirror one another.
Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in the almost self-willed isolation of the departments and faculty members. The authors of The Shopping Mall High School could have been writing about ed schools when they wrote: "Independence--rather than moral or educational cohesiveness--is a central part of the high school teacher's identity.... Threats to that indepen- dence, even when presented in the name of educational progress, are resisted.... Shopping mall high schools instead promote autonomy--and hence isolation--by leaving their faculties alone.''
To use a slightly different metaphor, one might think of the college of education as a kingdom divided into autonomous fiefdoms between which there is little travel. The college consists of three distinct departments: curriculum and instruction, specialized educational development, and educational administration and foundations. To move from one department to the next is to move from one separate realm to another; several professors in curriculum and instruction, for instance, acknowledged that they had scarcely a clue about what was going on in educational administration and foundations. Making matters even more Byzantine is the fact that curriculum and instruction is subdivided into four additional departments--early childhood education, elementary education, junior high education, and secondary education--each of which, with its own coordinator, is pretty much a separate entity. "It's turf,'' said one professor, who asked not to be named. "There are people who honestly believe that students will be lost if they don't get their particular methods class.''
John Goeldi, whose reading methods class I had attended earlier, said while it may be true that there were certain specific things a history or physics teacher had to know, it was also true that there was some commonality to what all teachers did and that the Balkanization of the ed school didn't make sense. "But many people in elementary, junior, and secondary ed just won't believe that,'' he said. "They'll fight you to the death when it comes to doing away with some of these divisions. It's territorial.''
Many of the elementary school student teachers finishing up their education at ISU spoke highly of what they had learned there. "The schools aren't up to what ISU is teaching,'' one student said, "which is why graduates who know how it could be get so frustrated once they have their own classrooms.'' But these students were also, virtually without exception, highly critical of what they saw as an overwhelming bureaucracy at ISU that made a sense of community impossible.
Erik Jensen, one of five students who had taken a midafternoon break from student teaching to meet with me around a conference table, said the ed school was crippled by compartmentalization. "The communication is terrible, absolutely terrible, even between professors teaching the exact same thing,'' he said. "As a result, there's a lot of duplication on one hand and, on the other, a lot of holes in knowledge no one thought to fill.''
"Oh, they know nothing about community,'' Jennifer Fehlig pitched in. "The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. It's just a big bureaucracy.'' She cited, as did others, an interdisciplinary portfolio project that collapsed under the weight of ignorance and indifference. Many professors simply didn't care if their students kept the supposedly required portfolios; the others had no unifying sense of what the portfolios were supposed to be.
Just as the high school English teacher may not have the faintest idea of what the history teacher next door is doing, so the instructor of reading methods may not know what an instructor in social studies is teaching-- or, for that matter, even what's going on in the classroom of a reading methods colleague. In fact, during my week at ISU several professors asked me what I had discovered in various classes, eager to find out from an outside observer what their ed school was really like.
But doing that was something of a quixotic mission; the school, as far as I could tell, had no overarching vision. Like the public schools it seemed to reflect, it had about it an air of neutrality. There was no clear sense of what the education of teachers should be about. I asked Fred Taylor, coordinator of the elementary education program, if his department had something akin to a mission statement. He told me that he thought a few were filed about somewhere but that he wasn't sure what they contained. The department, with its multiplicity of views, was, he said, "eclectic.'' But to call the ed school "eclectic,'' I told him, could be seen as "a spin,'' a euphemism for a lack of vision.
"Eclecticism is positive, I think,'' Taylor said. "Students become confused if they're looking for 'the answer' and thinking that we as a faculty should have agreement as to what the answer is. We're not at all at the same point conceptually. Implementation of the syllabi varies greatly across the faculty.''
Whether one calls it eclecticism or a vagueness of purpose, the absence of cohesiveness brings us, once again, back to the metaphor of the shopping mall. Because ed school students "shop'' from a catalogue that emphasizes variety over depth, they inevitably lack knowledge that is essential if they are to approach schools critically.
John Dewey is a case in point. Conservatives often blame Dewey's progressivism for many of the ills that pervade American education; liberals, on the other hand, typically argue that Dewey's educational tenets have never really been put into place, mired as most of the schools still are in teaching the basics. Regardless of one's view, Dewey is undeniably a towering figure in American education, and students must understand his legacy if they are to understand, in practical terms, how his ideas have been applied and misapplied in ordinary classrooms. Furthermore, without an understanding of Dewey--or the origins of the common school or countless other aspects of American education-- the new teacher is likely to be misled into thinking that an approach is new (whole language or cooperative learning, for example) when in fact it has resurfaced, in various manifestations, decade after decade.
But, as both students and professors told me, few students graduate from ISU knowing much about Dewey or, for that matter, much about a number of salient issues in American education. Future teachers are required to take only one course on the history and philosophy of American education, and professors who teach the course tend to focus on his or her own special interest.
Chris Eisele, whose office walls are lined with pictures of Dewey and Dewey paraphernalia, said for most students the philosopher was "but a name with a one-line definition.''
"We missed the entire 'reflective practitioner' movement here,'' he said. "Students would probably say we spent a day on it. Part of the problem is that we don't have enough sense to give students more than a three-credit course in the history of education. The other problem is that this college has had a very behaviorist view of instruction so that Dewey--but for a pocket here and there--would rarely be brought up. Things are now beginning to change, but we're 10 years late. And once a gap happens it's hard to make it up. The roots of the problem are historical. Curriculum and Instruction, for instance, has had something like 15 chairs in 15 years, and they've all done their own fiefdom thing.''
I asked Eisele how he thought teacher training could be improved.
"We have to decide if we want to make meaning or make lists. Unfortunately, meaning has come to mean having students give definitions rather than real understanding. We need to get the list-makers out the door.''
To suggest that ed schools more or less train teachers to replicate existing teaching practices is hardly novel. John Goodlad, the University of Washington writer and education scholar, has noted in several books that novice teachers almost inevitably model the behaviors of observed teachers. In the mid- and late-1980s, Goodlad and his colleagues Roger Soder and Kenneth Sirotnik studied ed schools across the country and essentially discovered that teachers are trained not so much to change or renew schools but to inure, with a minimum of fuss, to the conditions that already exist. "We did not find at any of the ed schools a principal basis on which the program was constructed,'' Soder told me over the phone. "There is, instead, an acceptance of what is a piling on of courses. The problem is that most Americans still think the schools are pretty good, and teacher ed programs as a result are pretty much guaranteed to maintain what we already have.''
Based on what I observed at Illinois State, it seemed that little in teacher education has changed since Goodlad and his colleagues did their study. There are professors, it is true, who are committed to change, and many spoke hopefully of the new dean, Sally Pancrazio, as someone who could instigate meaningful change. But institutions, especially large ones, are invariably sluggish. Professors, like schoolteachers, have little time to consider how they could change their own teaching, much less the philosophy of a vast institution. This is compounded by the constant pressure to publish. "To do things that are new and different, you need a little slack time,'' Goeldi said. "When I first came here 25 years ago, people were yelling from the windows, saying that one of these days things are going to change. But it's never quite happened. We're too overpowered by numbers. There's constant demand to do what consumers want you to do.''
Regardless of how idealistic students may be, what they're most concerned about as graduation approaches is getting a job. And because schools are, for the most part, satisfied with the training ISU students receive, there is little incentive for the ed school to change.
But this general contentment with the status quo has a price. Students taught in isolated departments by often isolated instructors learn to acquiesce in the face of the isolation they will face in their own schools. They learn, in an institution that has no clear vision, to accept the bland neutrality that permeates so many schools. And because they are unprepared for the political realities of school life--the pressures they'll encounter from everyone from administrators and colleagues to parents and school board officials--they often lose any sense they might have had of themselves as possible agents of change. No one can transform schools without an understanding of the forces that shape them.
Goodlad and Soder, as director and associate director, respectively, of the Center for Educational Renewal, have been involved in a comprehensive effort to reform schools and education schools. "Simultaneous renewal'' is the key concept, they believe, for it is futile to try to renew one but not the other; ed school reform initiatives will die in intractable schools, and school reforms won't endure if narrowly prepared teachers don't have the propensity or confidence to carry them out.
Renewing ed schools and schools is a Herculean task, but I asked Soder to suggest a first step an ed school could take. "One immediate, immensely important step a place like Illinois State can take,'' he said, "is to assign cohort groups of student teachers to schools. You can't hang school change on one slender reed, which is the student teacher. The student teacher is all bushytailed and then encounters a 20year veteran who says, 'Welcome to the real world.' The student will say, 'I want to do cooperative learning,' and the teacher will say, 'There, there, there, just wait until you have your own classroom.' But if instead of assigning one student teacher to one teacher, you assign five, you have a chance. There's a chance their voices will be heard.''
Back at ISU, John Goeldi suggested that ed schools might do a better job if the entire preparation of teachers took place within the public schools. As it is, he said, theory and practice are disconnected. "People in ed school departments should get off their duffs and into the schools,'' Goeldi said. "In fact, we ought to have university personnel attached to every school in the city.''
Goeldi concluded by insisting that the whole tenor of teacher education had to reach a higher intellectual level. "Our students,'' he said, "too often take a mechanistic perspective of what they're about to do and don't get involved in the important big questions: 'How am I going to initiate change?' 'Is my job as a teacher limited to teaching reading and writing?' We don't really get into these questions here.
"Ask them to prepare lessons, and you'll see that they have really created a script. The teacher says 'x,' the student says 'y.' They have fixed in mind a notion of how the dialogue will play out. But it doesn't work out that way. What if the students don't respond? What do you do then? The problem is that what students remember from their own education is that dialogue. So, when it's their turn to teach, they bear witness.''
I was on the way out of Goeldi's office when he told me, rather sadly, of three former students he had recently spoken with who now desperately wanted to get out of teaching. They had taught for almost 10 years at very different kinds of schools--urban, rural, and suburban--and were exhausted by all the obstacles they had to surmount. "They just no longer feel they can make a difference,'' Goeldi said.
Most future teachers enter the university believing they can make a difference. It is one of the sad ironies of the education school experience that it does little to nurture that belief--the one without which teachers cannot survive.
Get 10 free stories, e-newsletters, and more!
- Part-Time Teachers - Special Education Department
- Hartford Public Schools, Hartford, CT
- Permanent Building Substitutes - Elementary Level
- Westport Public Schools, Westport, CT
- Principal-Multiple Vacancies
- Polk County Schools, Bartow, FL
- Director of Academic and Strategic Initiatives - Instruction
- Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Annapolis, MD
- Mathematics Instructional Support Coach
- Weymouth Public Schools, Weymouth, MA